Lagonda lives! Not quite so wedgy, still rather wonderful Exclusive! We drive new Taraf and original super-saloon.
If you want to know how to induce fear, and probably a touch of loathing, into the heart of a magazine publisher, there are few better ways than to present him with a cover featuring a beige car of ‘challenging’ appearance. And yet, there’s always been something about Aston Martin’s ‘wedge’ Lagonda that has attracted the car enthusiast, and they’re suddenly becoming really hot property – so I’d like to think this month’s Drive-My will be another best-seller, beige or not. We love it! Another reason that we chose this month to feature the Lagonda is that we finally got our hands on Aston Martin’s new 2016 Lagonda Taraf. To get the two cars together, and drive both, was fascinating; you can read about them starting on page for the ‘wedge’ and for the Taraf.
1984 Aston Martin Lagonda Made You Look
In 1976, Aston Martin wowed the motor show crowds with its futuristic Lagonda. Forty years later, it has suddenly become more fashionable than ever Words Mark Dixon. Photography Matthew Howell.
There’s something perversely satisfying in the fact that the Aston Martin Lagonda was styled by a man with a very ordinary name. You might expect to see the name ‘William Towns’ engraved on the dial of an 18th Century longcase clock, perhaps – but Bill Towns as the designer of one of the most avant garde cars the world has ever seen? Cool Britannia, indeed, more than 20 years before the term passed into mainstream usage.
We weren’t short of visions of the future back in 1976. At home, children were glued to TV sci-fi shows such as Space: 1999. At school, with fingers often stained with fountain-pen ink, the more fortunate ones tentatively stabbed at the buttons of newly launched Texas TI-30 electronic calculators, or checked the time on their Casiotron digital watches. We still hadn’t given up on the dream that one day we’d all be flying in hover-cars. Until that day came, the new Lagonda, launched at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1976, was surely the next best thing. Long, low, and as sharp of edge as any schoolboy’s folded-paper aeroplane, it was a completely radical take on the luxury saloon. Yet it was being announced by the ultra-traditional marque of Aston Martin, and had been sketched by a bloke named Bill. Go figure.
The Shock and Awe tactic worked brilliantly for Aston Martin, a company that was then in as deep a financial hole as any it had fallen into during its history. In 1975 it had gone into voluntary liquidation and was moribund for about six months, before it was resuscitated by a small consortium as Aston Martin Lagonda (1975). And it was the last part of that name that would keep the company afloat for the crucial remaining years of the 1970s. Buyers, particularly in the Middle East, loved the Space Age looks of the new Lagonda, and during the honeymoon period following its launch it outsold the more conventional AM V8 model by a considerable margin.
Fashion is a fickle mistress, however, and Lagonda owners soon found that she could be a particularly expensive one, too. As the 1980s passed into the ’90s and then the new Millennium, the inevitable problems suffered by ageing 1970s electronics – and, it has to be said, the Lagonda’s love-it-or-loathe-it looks – saw these cars slip quietly down the metaphorical Cool Wall and become the preserve of a handful of bloody-minded, not to say obsessive, enthusiasts. Everyone could see the appeal of a classically elegant Aston Martin V8 two-door; not many still carried a torch for the peculiarly 1970s optimism enshrined in the wedge-shaped Lagonda. Until now. Almost overnight, it seems, fashion has come full circle and the Lagonda is suddenly cool again so much so, that a brand new Lagonda inspired by the William Towns original has just been launched by Aston Martin. It’s called the Taraf and we get behind the wheel of that car on next pages. But first, let’s pay homage to the car that car designers would like to own.
Marek Reichman has been the head of design at Aston Martin for more than a decade. He can still remember the exact moment he first saw a William Towns Lagonda.
‘It was in London, not far from Berkeley Square, and it was finished in silver-grey. With that striking low nose, it looked so different from all the other cars around it, like it really was from another era. I was about 17 or 18 and I’d made a rare trip down from Sheffield to see an art exhibition. In those days, we didn’t have mobile phones and I didn’t have a camera with me, so I just stood there for what seemed like hours, drinking it in.
‘If you asked a lot of designers, I think you’d find it had a big influence on their thinking. Is it a perfect design? No. Is it dramatic? Yes. At the time, Towns was pushing the boundaries and drama was more important than the realisation of a perfect design. If you went to someone like Giugiaro or Gandini, or any one of the great Italian design houses, you might get something with superb proportions in the classical manner, but Towns was striving for something else, something more challenging. Look at the car – with that ultra-low bonnet and steeply raked windscreen, it’s like a sketch, isn’t it? And I can imagine the manufacturing guys outside of anywhere bigger thanAston Martin saying “No chance!”, but because we were handbuilding cars we could just say “Yeah, great, I can fold that panel, I can build that…” ‘That’s the advantage of a small company with great ambition and a bold designer. Abigger outfit would have ironed out some of the character on the way to production. I’m convinced that, as the world’s great concours events start to admit more recent cars, the Lagonda will be right up there among them.’
Aside from its outrageous style, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Lagonda was the speed with which it went from drawing board to press launch. The refloated but still perilously waterlogged Aston Martin needed something spectacular to show in 1976, and it needed it quickly. William Towns and chassis engineer Mike Loasby rose to the challenge: the first sketches of the body appeared in February 1976, and ten months later, on 12 October, the finished car (albeit a non-runner) was shown to the press.
To dismiss those ten months of intensive labour in a single sentence is almost obscene, of course. The existing V8 chassis was deemed not strong enough, so a new one had to be designed by Loasby, with a large twin boxsection central spine sprouting welded steel panels. And then there was the issue of shoehorning the V8 engine beneath that incredibly low bonnet. The solution was to fit a particularly low airbox and a modified sump.
The engine was also detuned from AM V8 spec to give a more appropriately limousine refinement, with a milder camshaft but bigger valves to compensate for some of the power loss. A Chrysler Torque Flite automatic transmission was chosen for reliability; a manual ZF option was mooted but would never materialise.
So far, so conventional: mechanically, under the razor-edge skin there was nothing to frighten the horses. It was a different story inside the cabin…
You already know what we’re talking about, but let’s maintain the suspense a little longer. Unlike most Aston Martin products, the Lagonda was a genuine four-seater, with proper accommodation for passengers three and four on appropriately squashy, soft leather seats. Never mind that the headroom was a little tight, and space for knees somewhat at a premium; more controversial were the fixed rear windows, necessitated by the body’s pronounced tumblehome, which wouldn’t allow them to retract. Air conditioning was the fallback position – something of a gamble for any handbuilt car targeted at particularly hot parts of the world. Buyers could just be grateful that the front windows opened, for that wasn’t guaranteed when the car was being developed.
Any concerns about trivialities such as legroom or the ability to breathe would surely be forgotten, however, in the light – literally – of the Lagonda’s spectacular LED, touch-panel dashboard. The original plan was to have nothing as old-fashioned as knobs, switches or levers for the driver to operate. Instead, everything would be controlled electronically, using touch-sensitive ‘circles’ that detected the electrical resistance in a finger. In the event, the boffins at Cranfield Institute of Technology couldn’t get the system to work properly and an American outfit, Javelina Corporation of Texas, was subcontracted to sort it out. The cost of doing this was four times the estimated budget for the entire car.
By the time the first production cars started to trickle out to customers in 1978, slight compromises had been made to this sci-fi concept. Switch count had been reduced and there were now a mere 17 touch-switches on the dash, and a further 14 in the driver’s door, plus three rheostat knobs and a slide lever for ventilation. The practicalities of being able to drive the car safely had won out – slightly – over the idealistic dream.
But did it work? Yes. And no. The concept was brilliant: all the usual dials are replaced with little red LED readouts – just like you’d find on a 1970s calculator – that display units or percentages. So, for example, the fuel level might be showing ‘80’ (percent) or the oil pressure ‘60’ (pounds per square inch). Speed and engine revolutions are also shown numerically, top right.
The drawback is that it can be quite difficult for the human brain to process such information at a glance while otherwise engaged in, say, not crashing a car. At least, so it seemed in the 1970s. You have to wonder whether today’s generations, weaned on a diet of touchscreens and apps, would find it such a problem. A test drive from Aston Martin Works in the fine Lagonda pictured here proves that it’s a strangely hypnotic experience. Oddly enough, there’s no touch-switch for the ignition: you actually have to turn a key.
And you have to pull back a gearstick to engage Drive, and push levers (Vauxhall Carlton, reputedly) up or down to work flashers and wipers. Otherwise, however, you’re transported to a vision of the 21st Century, as it was imagined 40 years ago.
The engine catches instantly on start-up and burbles away quietly to itself; this is a limousine, remember. Your attention is already caught by the LED digits fluctuating in line with the engine’s ever-changing state of health, like waiting at the bedside of a patient hooked up to a monitoring station. But almost as fascinating is the tiny, go-kart-like steering wheel that seems lost in such a large car. It out-Citroëns Citroën in terms of weirdness.
You expect that miniature wheel to be massively overassisted but, in fact, there’s a decent amount of weighting and some feedback from the tyres; the Lagonda has no pretensions to be other than a Grand Tourer but you can really hustle it along quite nicely, thanks to good balance and a well-controlled ride. It’s not particularly fast, but that hardly seems to matter, although a twin-turbo prototype was in fact built – and raved about by Ian Fraser in Car magazine, when he test-drove it. Problems with force-feeding the carburettored V8 in a cramped engine bay led to that idea being dropped.
Apart from the subdued background beat of the V8, which is all part of the car’s charm, it’s remarkably quiet and an extremely comfortable way in which to cover ground. Motor Sport ’s tester drove more than 500 miles in a single day on British roads for its January 1982 issue and reported that afterwards he ‘…was no more tired than if he had sat in an armchair all day’.
A gentlemen’s club, laidback driving style seems only appropriate, because youwill attract attention like never before. Returning along the High Street in Newport Pagnell, we passed a couple of housewives chatting in the street. The last people to take any notice of a flash car in a town that’s been making flash cars for six decades, you would think, and yet they paused their conversation to turn and stare. The Lagonda is just so different from anything else, Aston Martins included.
Despite a price that rose as rapidly as the LED digits on the dashboard when you depressed the throttle – it spiralled from £24,570 in May 1977 to £56,500 in February 1982 – the Lagonda sold well, accounting for nearly half of all the company’s sales in 1979. But it had problems, not least with that signature dashboard, and in September 1983 the car was extensively revamped. There were now (shock!) partially opening rear windows, BBS pepperpot alloys superseding the original’s distinctive painted/stainless steel discs, and a new type of digital dashboard that used cathode-ray tubes instead of LEDs.
Trying to improve the limitations of the interior space proved virtually impossible, however, as young designer Simon Saunders – who joined Aston Martin in the late 1970s and would achieve lasting fame with the Ariel Atom – quickly discovered. ‘One of my jobs was to try to sort out the interior’s “reverse Tardis” character, in that it was smaller on the inside than it looked from outside!’ he remembers. ‘There was an interior styling buck that William Towns had made, but it turned out to be bigger than the actual car was…
‘It was a flawed car, although it probably kept Aston alive at a time when there was very little money about.
We were always encouraged to put miles on engineering development mules when we needed to go anywhere – but we’d always try to take the company Cortina!’ The really big changes to the Lagonda came in 1986, in an attempt to freshen up the looks and halt declining sales. Inside, there was yet another type of dashboard, this time featuring Audi Quattro-style vacuum fluorescent displays flanked by conventional push buttons – a more conventional Aston Martin steering wheel had already appeared. Outside, the dilution of the 1970s radicalism continued with a softer, less angular reworking of the Towns design, with tail-lights moved from bootlid to lower body, and pop-up headlights ditched in favour of multiple shallow lenses either side of the radiator grille (which was actually a transmission cooler). It was a better car, but one that had lost some of the idealism with which it was conceived.
By the time production ceased in 1990, a total of 645 Lagondas had been made, about half of which went to the Middle East. Inevitably, in a part of the world where supercars are routinely abandoned by their super-rich owners, the attrition rate has been high. And these Lagondas have never been famed for their trouble-free ownership experiences…
Fortunately for the would-be Lagonda owner, help is at hand today in the very capable form of Aston Martin Works, which maintains and restores all ages of Aston at the company’s old Newport Pagnell factory. They are well used to the car’s foibles and can fix anything – even the infamous dashboards.
‘The CRT versions are the least reliable, because they depend on very high voltages and are susceptible to damp,’ explains Nigel Woodward, head of the Heritage Division. ‘We offer an analogue conversion that uses conventional V8 dials for reliability, but the digital dashes can be made to work again. The only caveat is that they’ll only work as well as they did originally, which was never particularly brilliant to start with.
‘Not being used often enough is the car’s biggest weakness, because connections fail and batteries go flat. There’s a lot of wiring in a Lagonda so, for everyday driving, fitting a heavy-duty battery and bigger alternator is a sensible upgrade. Otherwise, the jobs we most frequently have to undertake are structural repairs to sills and floorpan; mechanically they’re pretty sound, and 90% of the components are shared with the AM V8.’ Such work is never cheap, of course, but at least the owner can take comfort in the rising value of his vehicle. ‘Prices have definitely stiffened over the last 18 months,’ confirms Nigel, pointing out that a particularly nice 1984 example fetched nearly £100,000 at Bonhams’ Works Sale last May.
And there’s the irony. Back in the day, the Lagonda was sometimes pitched against the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit or, in later years, the Bentley Turbo R in that perennial motoring magazine feature ‘Who makes the best car in the world?’ Usually the testers would conclude that it wasn’t Aston Martin. Now, the very best Royce or Bentley from that era will struggle to crack £15,000. William Towns would be satisfied with that.
THANKS TO Aston Martin Works, www.astonmartinworks.com.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1984 Aston Martin Lagonda
ENGINE 5340cc all-alloy V8, DOHC per bank, four twin-choke Weber 42DNCF carburettors
MAX POWER 280bhp @ 5000rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE 360lb ft @ 3000rpm (est) / DIN
TRANSMISSION Chrysler TorqueFlite three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION Front: double wishbones, coil springs, self-levelling dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion axle, trailing arms, Watt’s linkage, coil springs, self-levelling dampers
BRAKES Discs, vented at front
PERFORMANCE Top speed 145mph. 0-60mph 7.9sec
‘A LAID BACK DRIVING STYLE SEEMS APPROPRIATE, BECAUSE YOU WILL ATTRACT ATTENTION LIKE NEVER BEFORE ’
‘ALMOST OVER NIGHT, FASHION HAS COM E FULL CIRCLE AND THE LAGONDA IS SUDDENLY COOL AGAIN’
2016 Lagonda Taraf Made You Stare
Responding to requests from Middle Eastern customers, Aston Martin has revived the Lagonda brand with an all-new four-seater – named Taraf. Words Mark Dixon. Photography Matthew Howell.
Coventry on a wet Tuesday night in winter; hardly the most glamorous location in which to photograph a £700,000 luxury car. A chill wind whips discarded chip wrappers along the pavement, and the occasional band of well-lubricated students stumbles by on the way back from the pub. Then comes a surprise. ‘Is that the new Lagonda?’
Asks one of the students, slightly less inebriated than his mates. It’s an unexpected question, given that this car is one of only two in the UK and hardly familiar even to well-informed petrolheads. Turns out that our questioner is a student on Coventry University’s famous automotive design degree course and he can’t believe what he’s stumbled across while on a night out with his mates. Full marks to him for recognising it; the lad will go far.
Whether he’ll remember it in years to come, in the way that Aston Martin design chief Marek Reichman can recall the day he first saw a William Towns Lagonda (as recounted on previous page), we may never know. But what is certain is that the new Taraf – it means ‘luxury’ in Arabic – was directly inspired by the 1970s car, and has been built by Aston Martin to satisfy a demand from Middle Eastern customers who loved the original.
At first, the plan was to build only 100 examples, but that figure has recently been doubled so that customers in some other global markets can take advantage of it being EU-legislation compliant. The total is being firmly capped at 200, so we’re told, which means this will always remain a very exclusive Lagonda – and which means it’s even more of a privilege that Octane is one of very, very few magazines being allowed to drive it.
To be honest, when we first open the driver’s door and slip into the cocoon of beige leather, there’s an initial tinge of disappointment. It’s a perfectly lovely place to be but it’s not noticeably different from any other Aston Martin cabin in terms of design, a niggle that would not seem hugely significant were it not that the Bill Towns Lagonda was so peculiarly defined by its spaceship dashboard. Reichman himself acknowledges the point, advising us to wait until the Aston Martin DB11 appears later in 2016 – the unvoiced implication being that the DB11 has had all the focus in this respect.
Externally, there is no doubt that the Taraf references the Towns original. Reichman is an unashamed fan of that car but his own creation eschews outrageous futurism in favour of a more restrained, more elegant and, yes, much more beautiful shape. As with many interesting cars, your fascination builds the more you study it from different angles, and our first thoughts on seeing it in the metal are that it would make a great Lancia. Reichman is not offended by the comparison.
‘There is certainly an Italianate nature to the car, with its long nose and balanced tail, and that was a deliberate move away from the more Germanic trend towards a short nose, which is what BMW brought to the party.’ All the more remarkable, then, that Reichman has been able to incorporate several design cues that pay tribute to the Towns original without looking in the slightest way contrived or retro. The headlights may flank a deep grille – something conspicuous by its absence from the Towns car – but they have the shallow, flat-fronted aspect of the 1970s original, and are complemented by tail-lights that recall the thin, horizontal strips of the earlier model.
Even more noticeable is the relatively upright line of the D-pillar, which, as on the Towns car, contrasts dramatically with the shallow rake of the A-post. Reichman explains that it’s intended to give the impression that it’s pulling the windscreen rearwards, while emphasising the rear occupant space.
And that’s the crucial point: the Taraf is all about the man in the back (and, given the market this car is aimed at, it will almost certainly be a man) rather than the one sitting up front. Of course, it sacrifices absolutely nothing in terms of performance: 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds and a maximum speed ‘greater than 195mph’ are hardly a disgrace. But, ultimately, this car is a limousine rather than a sports car or even a GT. The way it drives, while hardly an irrelevance, is further down the priority list than it would be for other Aston Martin products.
Insert the infamous crystal keyfob into the centre of the dash and the 5.9-litre V12 comes to life with a muted roar; there’s no theatrical bark from the exhaust. The Taraf is basically a stretched Rapide S – more accurately, it’s a further variation on Aston Martin’s established VH platform – and that car’s engine has been very slightly detuned to suit its new role here, down 10bhp from the Rapide S’s 552bhp. Damper settings and spring rates have also been played around with, but the Taraf still rides in the manner typical of a modern luxury car, with an underlying tautness. It’s never harsh; indeed, it’s notably supple by today’s standards, but it’s not as pillowy as the balloon-tyred Towns Lagonda featured in the preceding pages.
You do notice the similarity between the two cars in the way that the Taraf’s windscreen pillars sweep away from you like the light streaks on these night-time dual carriageways, but outward vision is actually pretty good. The Taraf never feels like a small car – it is, after all, 5.4 metres long, or 17ft 8in in the old money, with a wheelbase extended by 19.9cm – but it’s in no way cumbersome; you’re just vaguely aware of the car’s extra length when turning out of a junction. Or trying to find a space in a typical British car park.
Handling? Well, bear in mind that this is an incalculably precious engineering prototype, and that we’re circulating on greasily wet roads in the middle of Coventry, so let’s just say that there are no worries on that score. With its mid/rear-mounted eight-speed transaxle and a front/mid-mounted engine, weight distribution is excellent. Given the room to do it, you could doubtless have fun using the extra length and rear-wheel drive to provoke some pendulous oversteer, but that isn’t going to happen tonight in Coventry.
The mechanical layout posed a particular challenge with the interior packaging, however. You can’t help but notice, when you swap front seats for rear, that the accommodation out back is dominated by a large lump of leather-swathed transmission tunnel. There’s been much in the press recently about men’s tendency to sit on London Tube trains with legs sprawled apart in the fashion of Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart, and you might expect that the one place you could do this in privacy would be in the back of your Taraf. Not so.
The seats are generously proportioned but there are most definitely only two of them, and the tunnel encourages you to sit with both legs primly canted slightly to one side. There’s lots of legroom, much more so than in the Towns car, and plenty of headroom, but a compromise has had to be reached.
No one will want for luxury in a Taraf, however, that’s for sure. The quality of fixtures and fittings is first class, and in any case Aston Martin is confident that pretty much every buyer will opt to have their car customised by its ‘Q by Aston Martin’ department. Special materials, colours, textures, fittings can all be incorporated at the buyer’s whim. Need a bespoke cage in which to transport your saker falcon to the desert? Aston Martin will be only too happy to oblige.
All this comes on top of the basic list price, of course, which in the UK is a healthy £580,000 plus VAT. But Lagonda saloons have always been expensive. The original Rapide of the early 1960s, based on a modified DB4 platform, was priced at £4950, when a typical British house cost £2770.
Then came the first William Towns Lagonda – not the ‘wedge’, but the DBS-based four-door, of which only seven examples were originally made: it cost £14,040 at launch in 1974, when the average house was £9970. The Lagonda would have seemed dear at the time but the asking price for the ‘wedge’ Lagonda that followed it – confusingly labelled the Series 2, as a result – had a considerably more eye-watering price tag: at the time the first cars were being delivered to customers in early 1979, it retailed for £49,333, when a house cost £17,793.
So, given that a typical UK house is now valued at around £197,000, the Taraf’s tax-inclusive price of £696,000 is par for the course. And for that you get a bodyshell entirely clothed in carbonfibre panels, courtesy of Canadian specialist Multimatic’s UK operation based in Thetford, Norfolk. Not that you’d know: Aston Martin has patented a curing process that guarantees the weave will never be visible through the top coat.
Carbonfibre has many advantages for a limited-production car like the Taraf, says Reichman. It’s hugely strong, of course. Moreover, unlike aluminium, it holds its shape perfectly when moulded, with no tendency to spring back like the metal does when it’s removed from a press tool – which means that an alloy panel’s shape has to be ‘overcrowned’ to compensate. To look at this Taraf, you’d never guess that it wasn’t sculpted out of traditional metal. And it’s light; despite its extra length, the Taraf weighs almost exactly the same as a Rapide S.
A very special car, then, and one that has no directly comparable competitor, as Marek Reichman explains with the help of an analogy with the world of aviation. ‘Most luxury saloons are like an Airbus A380: they’re big, and they have a cabin for first-class passengers, but they’re not totally focused on that. A Taraf is like Concorde. It’s very dramatic, very British, and everyone on board is travelling first class.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2016 Lagonda Taraf
ENGINE 5935cc all-alloy V12, DOHC per bank
MAX POWER 540bhp @ 6650rpm / DIN
MAX TORQUE 465lb ft @ 5500rpm / DIN
TRANSMISSION Touchtronic III eight-speed transaxle
STEERING Power-assisted rack-and-pinion, speed sensitive
SUSPENSION Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
BRAKES Dual-cast discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 195+mph. 0-60mph 4.4sec
‘TAIL-LIGHTS RECALL THE THIN HORIZONTAL STRIPS OF THE ORIGINAL WILLIAM TOWNS LAGONDA’
‘MAREK REICHMAN’S CREATION ESCHEWS OUTRAGEOUS FUTURISM IN FAVOUR OF A MORE ELEGANT AND, YES, MORE BEAUTIFUL SHAPE’